20 September 2018

Enter Pseudo-satellites! Does Romania need them?

Mircea Mocanu

The ISR initials mean “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance”, all used with the military meaning: military intelligence, reconnaissance (as knowing the battle-space), and surveillance, as observing the evolution of the relevant elements for achieving and maintaining the domination of the conflict space.

Image source: Mediafax

From tactical to strategic level, the devices used to conduct these missions get more and more sophisticated, from observing with the naked eye (or through hearing), to binoculars, cameras, systems without a human operator (underwater, naval, land or air), vehicles with human operators (again, land, naval and aerial), to military reconnaissance satellites. Lately, a new ISR warfare category appeared, dedicated to cover the niche between reconnaissance aircraft and satellites: welcome to pseudo-satellites!

General information sites define these devices as being “something that is not a satellite, but which has all the characteristics of the satellites domain”. Rather simplistic, but true. A pseudo-satellite should be a flight device without a human operator, which offers the products of a satellite, without actually being one. The products expected from such equipment require ground station control and information downlink to user centers. Hence, the use of the pseudo-satellites is actually provided by a dedicated payload connected to an on-board transceiver. This solution would offer operational services (mainly communication, navigation and IMINT) at a less prohibitive price than the satellites.

What would be the prerequisites for such equipment?

Firstly, we must mention that the necessary contraptions involve a geostationary position, for the continuous monitoring of a specific region. Hence, the pseudo-satellite must be able to maintain itself on a geostationary orbit, over a period of time which is long enough to assure the effective monitoring of the targeted operational space. Hence, the pseudo-satellite must dwell clear of the atmospheric phenomena that an airplane faces (which cannot maintain a geostationary operation either). Therefore, the pseudo-satellites must operate beyond the atmosphere, in the stratosphere, where the airplanes cannot fly because they “breath air”, meaning they rely on propulsion by combustion. 

Now we have the available operational area, which is around 20 000 meters altitude, outside the air traffic and outside the meteorological phenomena with hindering level. Consequently, the propulsion can be only solar, which limits the energy consumption and the dimension of the payload. For collecting and processing information regarding land (or maritime) activities, direct visibility is necessary. From the pseudo-satellite altitude, the line-of-sight stretches to a distance of more than 1000 kilometers. This results in technological prerequisites regarding the production of energy and the design of the payload, to assure an uninterrupted operation for weeks or even months, until bringing the pseudo-satellite back to ground, for maintenance. Of course, for longer operational cycles, several devices must be available, in order to take over the mission in turn.

Does anything like this exist? Well, yes, for a long time now. Globalsecurity.org mentions that the American company Lockheed Martin received a commission from the US Navy to build a device which should be lighter than the air, the airship USS Akron. This happened in…1928. Since then, Lockheed Martin produced for the Pentagon around 300 airships (dirigibles) like this, plus thousands of aerostats (tethered balloons).
Recently, NORAD requested financing for a High-Altitude Airship, to supply ISR missions over all US border areas, with ten airships. As result, between 2003 and 2007, the same company developed a research and development (R&D) program, which was cut during the sequestration decisions caused by the financial crisis. Yet, since April 2009, Lockheed Martin has a $400 million contract for the HALE-D prototype (High Altitude Long Endurance Demonstrator), specifying that the on-board RADAR must detect a hidden automobile under the tree canopy.

Space.com presents another American project, placed somewhat beyond the pseudo-satellites accepted meaning, the X-37B robotic space plane, which operates at 310-325 km altitude (comparing to the International Space Station, which orbits at 400 km). This project shows that the reusable space ship can operate around two years (the OT-4 version launched in May 2015 and landed in May 2017). The dimension of a X-37B are a lot smaller than an aerostat: 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 9.6 feet (2.9 m) tall, with a payload bay the size of a pickup truck bed.

It is worth mentioning also that the niche covered by the pseudo-satellites appears exactly when the classic reconnaissance aircraft face difficulties and become more and more vulnerable to air-to-air missiles. Hence, according to defense.com, in the US, the C-135 reconnaissance planes belonging to the 55th Regiment (Air Base Offutt, Nebraska), used in the Open Skies program , have many technical issues; in the US Congress it was showed that these break frequently, even during missions over Russia. Additionally, the C-135 accomplished only 64% of the Open Skies program, while the Russians accomplished 100% of their flights. For the Fiscal Year 2019, the refurbishing of these aircraft is expected.

But let’s cross the ocean to Europe, where the zephyr blows gently! Precisely it is the Zephyr, the High-Altitude Pseudo-Satellite, manufactured by Airbus. Zephyr is a stratospheric vehicle without a human operator, using solar energy, dedicated, according to producer’s website, “to revolutionize the military, humanitarian and environment missions”. The device will be fully operational in 2020. Zephyr looks like an unfolded card-holder and comes in two flavors, Zephyr-S and Zephyr-T. The first one, smaller, operates communication and IMINT equipment, while the second one - a bigger equipment (over 300W), offers high capacity internet, RADAR, LIDAR and EMS/ELINT payloads. In the IMINT domain, Zephyr aims at a 10cm resolution!
Zephyr-S has a 25m wingspan and 45 day autonomy and it is for sale: it costs less than $8 million. Or, at least, according to spacenews.com, that was the price in February 2016, when the British Ministry of Defence acquired a two system package, worth 13 million pounds. According to the British minister of defence, Michael Fallon, “Zephyr is a cutting-edge, record-breaking piece of kit that will be capable of gathering constant, reliable information over vast geographical areas at a much greater level of detail than ever before.”

According to the South-African site Defenceweb, there are also more modest potential buyers: at the defense fair held in Pretoria , in June 2018, Zephyr was offered to South Africa and…Namibia. If South Africa is interested in maritime warning, Namibia is interested in protection of its rich fishing maritime areas (!), and countries in the Gulf of Guinea and East Africa want to strengthen their maritime security, in areas persistently threatened by piracy.
Finally, only weeks after the World Cup’s ending, let’s make a comparison with football / soccer: Romania did not participate at the World Cup, we are modest, we have no satellites. For a leisure play with the neighbors in the back alley we are fine, because we have binoculars to scrutinize the sea horizon with. At the county championship we do OK, with cameras, and at the nationals we are quite successful, because we have drones (like everybody else). What are we going to do at the European games, which are oncoming, because we have no reconnaissance planes, neither we are sure we should offer easy air targets. Do we settle with the nil-nil result with Montenegro and Serbia?

At regional level, like the long-debated Black Sea Area, maybe the pseudo-satellites solution is actually adequate, since the operational range of such a device, carefully placed above the Constanţa anchorage, is roughly equal with Black Sea dimension, West to East. Moreover, we are not the only ones interested in the security of the region: placed at NATO’s eastern border, this could give birth to a pilot project of the Alliance, considering the present regional security environment. Additionally, we benefit from the perspective of a constant budget allocation for defense, 2%, hopefully enough for a wise repartition between the national defense needs. It is not too late yet for proper R&D, and we can also think about the offset, at least ground infrastructure and systems. And the threats do not seem to go away from Romania.

Bottom line, would the pseudo-satellites be an IRS solution for Romania?